For many people, putting dinner on the table for their own families can be stressful — Alexander Rapaport has to worry about thousands of them. Together with his co-founder, Mordechai Mandelbaum, the two men feed 500 families a night with their nonprofit soup kitchen network, Masbia.
And in time for Passover, karpas is getting a colorful twist as part of Masbia’s new campaign: the charoset drive.
Masbia opened its doors in April 2005 in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Since its inception two more locations have been added, one in Midwood, Brooklyn, and one in Rego Park, Queens.
These three food pantries provide hot and nutritious meals in addition to take-home packages and groceries year-round for families in need. “It happens to be kosher. We serve everybody,” says Rapaport, a chasid who lives in Brooklyn. “The closest thing we market to the Jewish demographic is that we’re located in Jewish neighborhoods,” Rapaport says. He adds that the kitchens provide literature in six languages: English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish and Mandarin.
Designed with tables and seating in a clean, welcoming space — the floors are polished hardwood, the tables are covered in cloth and the walls are dressed with paintings — the space evokes the feeling of a restaurant more than a soup kitchen. This design not only creates a more inviting environment for patrons, but also lessens the awkwardness many who rely on the service might feel. The experience transforms from begging to dining.
Passover is an especially busy time for the restaurants. “On Passover it’s already traditional to think about the needy,” says Rapaport referring to the organization’s chief source of funding: its donors. “When you start learning the halacha of Pesach, it starts with taking care of the poor; it’s on people’s minds, as with Thanksgiving or before Rosh HaShanah,” he says.
Much like the charoset used to sweeten the bitter herbs, Masbia aims to infuse sweetness into what would otherwise be a challenging holiday for many. This year, it initiated a charoset drive, which aims to feed twice as many families during Passover as in an average week.
So far 2,000 deliveries have been made in Brooklyn, 500 in Queens and around 200 in the rest of the city. Only available on Passover, the delivery service is offered as a holiday bonus, such as the honey Masbia distributes on Rosh HaShanah for what Rapaport calls “a little holiday flavor.”
Typically the restaurants serve 1,000-1,500 families a week. On Passover their numbers jump to as many as 3,000 families. This dramatic spike in demand is not only because it’s a holiday with strict dietary requirements, but also because the sentiment of the holiday lends itself to asking for help.
“There is less stigma to get help for Passover,” says Rappaport. “People who would never ask for help or use charity food do,” he says. “I think because it’s so engrained in the tradition. It’s not a new concept to make a drive for Passover food; it’s an age-old tradition.”
Using an honor system — the only criteria for placing an order is calling from an identifiable landline with a deliverable address — Masbia provided a toll-free number and hired a call center that took calls for Passover requests for three days last week, offering extended hours on the last night. Masbia blasted the campaign on social media, their website and in local print media.
As part of the campaign, Masbia collaborated with The Chef’s Garden, an organic farm in Huron, Ohio. “At Masbia we always look for exclusive gifts that are not available on the market,” Rapaport says. As gratitude for donors of 18 families or more, Masbia is sending out gifts of specialty, hard-to-find micro-greens with the idea of creating a unique and colorful seder plate.
Run by Lee Jones, the farm ships their produce to many high-end restaurants and often receives requests from renowned chefs asking for specialty products. The Chef’s Garden combines traditional farming methods with unique practices under its sustainable agricultural philosophy. “People who can afford large donations can probably get much better gifts than something we can give them. It’s more about something money can’t buy,” says Rapaport.
These specialty products will be gracing no more than 30 seder plates this year (since the produce is so exclusive, it necessitated a delivery cap). “As we are speaking the greens are still in the ground or greenhouse,” says Rapaport. But for those 30 families, their seder plates will come alive with pink-tip parsley, petite green parsley, celery root, purple radish seedlings, baby romaine lettuce and four different color radishes: purple, white, watermelon and black purple.
Using only natural means, The Chef’s Garden is literally planting the seeds for a better tomorrow. “Obviously outside of Masbia there is a foodie element to it. I haven’t seen anyone looking to reinvent the seder plate in its traditional form,” says Rapaport. “We’re not trying to change the meaning; we are just finding trendiness in the tradition.”
Unfortunately, not all times of the year are as festive or fecund as Passover. “We love the regular days — the problem is our donors think of us only in milestone days,” says Rapaport. “Our most challenging time is a cold winter Tuesday when no one thinks about the poor, but we still serve hundreds of people.”
But much like the fortitude of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt, Rapaport has not lost hope. “The fact that we’ve survived for 11 years reflects that people help out, but it’s still a grass-roots, emergency feel,” says Rapaport. “We are still in survival mode.”
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